BOOK SMART: Temple student MaryKate Higgins (left) and Tree House Books after-school coordinator Lauren Macaluso Popp organized volunteers to get the library at the Tanner Duckrey School into working order.
Principal Tracy Scott isn’t sure when Tanner Duckrey School at 15th and Diamond in North Philly last had a librarian, or a functioning library. There hasn’t been one in her eight years working there. And a glimmer of hope that arose last year, when library services staff came by to offer improvements, quickly faded: When Scott called to check on that plan, she learned those staff had been laid off before it could be implemented. In the end, she says, the library “became sort of a dumping ground.”
While many were outraged to learn this fall of library closures at magnet schools Masterman and Central — an anonymous donor quickly put forward $205,000 to reopen them — at smaller neighborhood schools like Duckrey, this has long been the status quo.
Now, though, a corps of volunteers organized by the Free Library and various nonprofits is streaming into a number of under-resourced and disused reading rooms around the city with a plan for reinvigorating and reopening them. The project, which began over the past few weeks and which the Philly School District (PSD) considers to be in a pilot stage, is focused on schools that took on hundreds of students and dozens of crates of reading materials from the 24 Philly public schools that were shuttered in June. Whether this initiative can evolve into a sustainable, volunteer- or teacher-run library program in schools like Duckrey is another question — particularly as all parties try to avoid rankling a union already coping with the layoffs of thousands of members, including teachers, counselors, assistant principals and, yes, librarians. Philly public schools now have a total of 11 librarians, down from 43 last year.
“We’re not looking at replacing librarians,” says Kenneth Manns, director of volunteer services for the Free Library, which he says took on the effort as a “labor of love” after library president Siobhan Reardon learned about the layoffs and about the challenges facing newly merged schools. “Our goal as far as the library is concerned is not making it a full-fledged, check-your-book-out library. We’re looking at getting the rooms open as reading rooms to support literacy initiatives across the city. We hope the kids will have a library experience during the day.” The PSD is starting with eight schools, from a list of 27 that requested aid.
Work is already under way at Blaine Elementary, which received students and 200 boxes of books and furniture from the shuttered Leslie P. Hill School, and at Ben Franklin High, according to Olade Olayinka. A project analyst for the School District, Olayinka is monitoring the efforts to see how or if they might be replicated.
At Duckrey, volunteers brought in this week found plenty to do.
“Look how old these are!” says Scott, cracking open a box containing a vinyl record. “I mean, really — 45s?” She called on Tree House Books, a nonprofit used bookstore and community literacy center that serves 20 Duckrey students with an after-school program, to organize the effort. Two Temple organizations, Young Friends of Tree House Books and education honors society Kappa Delta Pi, provided a small army of student volunteers to sift through, purge and organize the books, reassemble bookcases that were missing shelves and coax dormant computers back into working order.
Lauren Macaluso Popp, Tree House’s after-school coordinator, is overseeing the effort. She says only about a quarter of the books were deemed worth saving. The rest were more than 50 years old, or badly damaged. “You can tell they just haven’t been touched,” she says. “It’s not fair to be an elementary school student and not have a library.”
About 30 boxes of books from Stanton, which closed in June (bal-loo-ning Duckrey’s student body from 280 students to 590), helped replenish the shelves. Popp wrote a grant application for a thousand more books, and Scott anticipates donations from Temple, too.
Next, the volunteers will inventory the books. The plan, says Popp, is to arm teachers with an app called Classroom Organizer that will allow them to help students check out and return books.
But while volunteers at Duckrey are excited that the library is coming together, they’re already worrying about maintenance.
Temple student and Young Friends of Tree House co-president MaryKate Higgins, 21, says volunteers want to help keep this library going through the school year — but aren’t sure whether they’ll have that opportunity. “If no one keeps up with it,” she says, “the teachers may not feel like they can bring the kids here.”
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers spokesperson George Jackson says “any parent-led, student-led or volunteer-led effort to make the best of a bad situation is fantastic.” But he likens a volunteer library staff to a “volunteer police department.”
“My understanding is you have to have a certified librarian to open a library at a school,” he says. “There’s a constitutional obligation to fund education that’s not being met.”
Bi Vuong, of PSD’s strategy delivery unit stressed in an email that “volunteers are not being used to ‘open’ libraries; they are there to help set up libraries for schools to use,” adding that they would not be able to provide instruction or direct support to teachers.
Scott, however, says a volunteer-run library is the only kind Duckrey is likely to have anytime soon. The way she sees it, “It’s not really a union thing, because we don’t have the resources for it. It’s not like we had [a librarian], and we had to get rid of that person. We haven’t had one for a long time.” After all, this is a school with many unfulfilled needs. For example, despite a tense merger with Stanton, support-services assistants who help maintain order were cut from six or seven last year to two. “We really rely on our volunteers,” Scott says.
At Duckrey, buzzing with volunteers on Monday, the enthusiasm was palpable. “I couldn’t help thinking, ‘Why did it take so long for this to happen?’” Popp says. “Tree House has been around the corner for seven years, and Temple has been there for a long time. But it kind of needed all these factors coming together to make it happen.”
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